Many women feel uncomfortable talking about vaginal odour, but understanding your body better can help you identify what's normal, and when to get medical advice.
The truth is, it’s completely natural for you to have some kind of vaginal odour, these smell variations are likely a result of your menstrual cycle, your hygiene habits, or just you being you.
Plus, your vagina resides in a warm, dark place loaded with lymph nodes and sweat glands, and even has its own ecosystem, complete with odour-producing bacterial flora.
So let’s get the down low on the different smells down below.
Tangy or fermented
It's very common for vaginas to produce a tangy or sour aroma, similar to the smell of fermented foods.
In fact, sourdough bread, yoghurt, and some beer contain the same type of good bacteria that resides in healthy vaginas, known as Lactobacilli.
The pH of a healthy vagina is slightly acidic, due to the Lactobacilli, which protects against bad kinds of bacteria.
Coppery or metallic smell
A coppery vaginal odour is usually nothing to worry about and very rarely signifies a more serious problem.
This smell can be caused by blood, which contains iron and carries a metallic fragrance.
During menstruation, blood and tissue shed from the uterine lining and travel through the vaginal canal.
The odour shouldn’t linger too long after your period is over.
Light bleeding after sex is also common and is usually due to vaginal dryness or vigorous intercourse that can cause small cuts and scrapes.
If your vagina has had contact with semen, this may change the pH level and cause a coppery smell.
It is best to see a doctor if you are experiencing bleeding unrelated to your period, or the metallic smell continues with itching and discharge.
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Sweet like molasses
If you experience a robust and earthly sweet smell, this is no cause for concern.
This scent is due to bacteria.
The vaginal pH is an ever-changing bacterial ecosystem, and sometimes this means you might smell a little sweet.
A chemical fragrance
A smell that resembles bleach or ammonia could be a couple of different things, and may be grounds to visit a doctor.
Urine could be the cause, as it contains a by product of ammonia called urea.
A build-up of urine in your underwear or around your vulva could stimulate a chemical smell.
Be mindful that urine smelling strongly of ammonia is a sign of dehydration.
It is also possible that the smell is a symptom of bacterial vaginosis, as a chemical scent can fall under the category of fish.
Signs of bacterial vaginosis include:
A foul or fishy odour
Thin grey, white, or green discharge
Burning during urination
Skunky BO or a smoked earthy scent
Many people have identified similarities between body odour and marijuana, but there is no scientific reason for this.
The vagina contains sweat glands which can produce similar smells to body odour.
A skunky smell could be caused by the body reacting to emotional stress.
Your body contains two types of sweat glands, apocrine and eccrine.
Eccrine glands produce sweat to cool your body down, while apocrine glands respond to emotions, populating your armpits and groin.
When you are stressed or anxious, the apocrine glands produce a milky fluid. On its own this fluid is odourless.
But when this fluid contacts vaginal bacteria on the vulva, it can produce a pungent aroma.
Unpleasant fishy smell
A decomposing fish smell could be caused by Trimethylamine, which is the chemical compound responsible for both the distinct aroma of rotting fish and some abnormal vaginal odours.
Bacterial vaginosis is one of the most common causes of the fishy scent, and occurs when there is an overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria in the vagina.
Trichomoniasis is the most common curable sexually transmitted infections and is also known for a pungent fishy odour.
It can be treated easily with a course of antibiotics.
In rare cases, a fishy smell is an indication of a more serious condition.
Rotten or decaying smell
A rotten odour, similar to a dead organism, may not actually be your vagina but something inside it.
It is very common for women to forget to remove their tampon, some have even gone weeks without realising.
This can cause the unpleasant smell, but it is perfectly safe to remove a forgotten tampon on your own.
However, it is advised to change your tampon every four hours and to be aware of the symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome.
If you experience any of these symptoms you should seek help immediately.
- a high temperature
- flu-like symptoms, such as a headache, feeling cold, feeling tired or exhausted, an aching body, a sore throat and a cough
- feeling and being sick
- a widespread sunburn-like rash
- lips, tongue and the whites of the eyes turning a bright red
- dizziness or fainting
- difficulty breathing
When you should see a doctor
Red flag odours are easy to spot, and if there’s a serious case, often other symptoms will appear alongside the smell.
You should consult a doctor if you are experiencing the following symptoms:
Itching or burning
Pain during sex
Thick, cottage cheese discharge
Vaginal bleeding unrelated to your period
Remember, it is completely normal to experience subtle shifts in your vaginal fragrance, but it is important to recognise if the smell is abnormal for you.
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